Education

Teachers at New York City’s Biggest Charter School Chain May Be Cheating on Standardized Tests

So says insider report on "helping" students at Success Academy.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Tyler Olson

One of the nation’s highest-profile charter school chains may be creating a culture of “teacher cheating” in which educators are so pressured to boost student standardized test scores that they will intervene in various ways during the tests, Politico New York has reported

“It seems possible if not likely that some teacher cheating is occurring at Success [Academy] on both internal assessments and state exams,” read a memo written last July by Roy Germano, a social scientist who the New York City-based chain hired to assess “questions we never thought to ask” as it was contemplating its continued growth. The memo was obtained byPolitico New York reporter Eliza Shapiro.

“While Germano did not conclusively prove that teachers were cheating,” Shapiro wrote, “he reports multiple incidents of Success staffers informing that Success teachers may have prepared students for specific questions on internal tests, allowed students to copy answers from each other, scored their own students higher than students in other classes, and pointed to incorrect answers on exams and warned students to rethink their answers.”

New York City’s Success Academy is the city’s largest charter school chain, with nearly 10,000 mostly poor students of color in 43 schools. It hopes to double its number of schools and students in the near future. As the New York Times reported last April, its claim to fame and justification for its “polarizing” academics and political advocacy come from its student test results on the state’s standardized math and reading exams, which have been more than double the average level of the city’s traditional public schools.

“Success Academy is the highest scoring charter chain in New York, possibly the nation,” said Diane Ravitch, a charter critic, pointing to Politico’s report. “It is also very controversial, due to its no-excuses policies, its attrition rates, and its claim to have cracked the code of raising test scores of low-income minority children. At its last fundraiser, last month, it raised $35 million in one night, including a gift of $25 million from one of its hedge fund admirers.”

The allegations of teacher cheating cut right to the core of the school's controversial methods and self-promotional claims. Yet such charges are neither unique nor unprecedented in the world of charter schools. Just last summer, the top state government regulator for Ohio’s charter schools intentionally left out the dismal scores of all-online charters when applying for a $71 million federal grant. He lost his job but the state still got the grant.  

New York City’s Success Academy is led by Eva Moskowitz, an ex-city councilwoman who is as brash as she is controversial for promoting her publicly funded schools. She has taken students out of school and bused them to the state capital to lobby lawmakers. She has demanded that the city give her buildings. She is notoriously anti-union, saying “I cannot run a school where labor and management are on different teams, because I don’t know how you put children first if you do that.”       

That uncompromising attitude extends into the school’s academics, which like many charter chains nationwide, emphasize annual test results above addressing each student’s talents and challenges. Moskowitz has touted the school’s better than traditional public school scores as the end that justifies whatever means are necessary to get there. The school’s harsh methods were on display in a video that went viral last winter, showing a young white teacher berating a first-grade student of color and tearing her paper in half in front of the class. The video was taken by a teaching assistant concerned about such treatment of students.

Germano, who wrote a series of reports and memos that Politico obtained, talked to a number of teachers and teaching assistants who described a day-to-day culture in the schools driven by teaching to the annual standardized tests. What emerges is a picture where pressure to obtain high scores roils faculty and students, and possibly encourages teachers to interfere in student test-taking or misreport the results.

As Politico wrote, “Germano’s reports and memo, along with a trove of other documents obtained by Politico—a separately commissioned internal draft risk assessment report, a compilation of exit interviews, and internal Success staffing records, among other documents—paint a picture of a growing enterprise facing institutional strain in the form of low staff morale, unusually high turnover, and the kind of stress that could drive teachers to exaggerate their student’s progress.”

The staff turnover—a combination of teachers who are fired and do not return—was said to be between 30 to 40 percent annually, compared to 6 to 7 percent for the city’s traditional public schools. What’s behind that figure is not merely that management has set unflinching standards, but also that, like most public charter schools, the network is allowed to hire barely trained and inexperienced teachers, many right out of college via programs like Teach for America. As a result, much of the faculty are like Peace Corps volunteers, who are thrown into foreign countries with little to no training and then face a metrics-driven crucible.

“Comments about a culture of fear at Success have been a recurring theme in my interviews,” Germano wrote in a report last July, one month before he was fired. Several months earlier, he was told to revise his report on possible teacher cheating, removing all use of the word cheating, and was banned from returning to the campus unless accompanied by approved staffers, Politico said.

One of Germano’s reports, “Unintended Consequences of Ranking Teachers” described how teachers are publicly ranked on how well their students do on tests—which he noted put those with special education students at a disadvantage. He wrote, “Lower performers feel like they’re being shamed in the public square even when they claim to be putting forth full effort.”

Another of Germano’s reports noted how the school was failing to address diversity issues and there was “little or no conversation about race in the schools.” That memo said, “Some white teachers have told me that they feel unprepared to communicate with parents of different races… some white teachers have reported being intimidated by the young children in their classrooms.” The faculty across the Success Academy network is largely white, while more than 90 percent of the students are not.

The charter chain’s spokesperson called all of Germano’s allegations—especially the possibility of teachers assisting or cheating on tests—“categorically false and not supported by a scintilla of fact.”

Success Academy’s rejection of Germano’s reports is what you would expect from a school that aggressively stage-manages its marketing. As Politico noted, “when state test scores are released each summer, Success’s public relations team—a combination of internal spokespeople and what has been a rotating cast of external firms—blasts out the network’s results, highlighting that many Success students outperform their peers not just in the city, but in wealthy suburbs like Scarsdale.”

But the school’s attempted censoring of Germano's reports, their findings and his firing last summer raises fundamental questions about the largest charter school in New York state. How can it use inexperienced teachers with the same student populations who have done poorly on these tests previously and suddenly double their scores?

Relentless focus on test preparation may be part of the answer, but so is what's implied in Germano's reports. The teachers may be afraid to admit it, especially after public school teachers in Atlanta were sent to prison after admitting they falsified student scores. However, Germano's reports more than suggest many of Success' students are not taking their statewide exams free of interference.

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Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).